Ronin (1998)

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Lady I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.  IRA woman Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) assembles a team of ex-special ops men turned mercenaries in Paris to carry out a heist on a briefcase carrying some mysterious material. They include ex-CIA agent Frank (Robert DeNiro), Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and French op Vincent (Jean Reno). They are joined by Englishman Spence (Sean Bean) and German Gregor (Stellan Skarsgaard). Each has a special gift to bring to this party. Spence immediately thinks he knows Frank from somewhere and the narrative die is cast:  as each member of the heist team begins to distrust the other, the body count mounts and this travelogue (through the south of France) speeds at an exhilarating pace with amazing car chases punctuating the stylish action around Arles and Nice. Deirdre meets secretly with fellow IRA op Seamus (Jonathan Pryce) and while she is double-crossing the team their numbers are dwindling at the hands of the Russian mob whose path they cross. Added to the mix is the ice skater Natacha Kirilova (Katharina Witt) whose showcase becomes the venue for the penultimate showdown. J. D. Zeik’s story and screenplay received a major rewrite from David Mamet under the name Richard Weisz and this super smart spy thriller benefits from shrewd juxtaposition of action with gleaming character detail. Add to that beautiful cinematography, some of the best car stunts outside of Bullitt (with Sudduth doing most of his own driving) and spot-on performances and you have a cracking genre entertainment which at the time marked a major comeback for the amazing John Frankenheimer.  The francophile was making a return to the south of France for the first time since French Connection II.  It’s great to see Michael Lonsdale as a fixer whose interest in samurai supplies the story behind the title. The final revelation is both surprising and satisfying. And the contents of that briefcase?  Well you’ve seen enough Hitchcock films to figure it out for yourself. Fantastic stuff, brilliantly directed.

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Hanover Street (1979)

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Nothing makes sense and then I’m with you and everything makes sense. Flight Lieutenant David Halloran (Harrison Ford) is standing in line for a London bus during the Blitz and plays leapfrog with a nurse (Lesley-Anne Down) and their antics mean they both miss the bus but fall in love over a cup of tea and then the street is bombed by the Germans. He wants to meet her on Thursday week – he has many bombing missions in between times – and she arrives, many hours late. They travel to the country and after several sexual assignations she finally tells him her name is Margaret. His squadron has another mission to fly but he notices an engine problem at takeoff and his colleague takes off in his place and is shot down. He is wracked with guilt. Meanwhile, it transpires that Margaret is married and her husband Paul Sellinger (Christopher Plummer) is a mild-mannered teacher training officers in intelligence and two have been captured and killed within two weeks of landing in Lyons:  there’s a double agent in the ranks. He volunteers to be dropped in France to photograph Nazi files to root out the culprit – and when he is allocated a pilot it’s Halloran and they’re the sole survivors of a firestorm. They have to don disguise to survive detection and find a hiding place on a farm. When Sellinger starts to describe his wife Halloran realises they’re in love with the same woman and she is giving them both reason to live … This has one of the great meet-cutes and it is overwhelming because it comes in the first ten minutes. Down and Ford are a fabulous looking pair and the (somewhat thin) story reminds you of the great WW2 romances, on which it was clearly modelled. The Sellingers’ home life is wonderfully exposed by their relationship with their young daughter Sarah played by cool girl Patsy Kensit and there’s some convincingly irritating banter between the bomb squad. We can see several Indiana Jones scenes in advance, played out here on German occupied territory albeit with a tad less humour. This doesn’t reach the heights it aims for but it’s beautifully made and the score by John Barry is simply epic. It makes you wonder why on earth the glorious Down hasn’t been cast more over the years. Sigh. There is however a rare appearance by the legendary comedian Max Wall as a locksmith. Written and directed by Peter Hyams.

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

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Aka Desert Attack. Two million men. Two million stories. This is one that happens to be true. Captain Anson (John Mills) is dying for a drink but he has to leave his post in Tobruk before the Germans invade and make his way with a medical unit by field ambulance (nicknamed Katy) to Alexandria in Egypt. He has to travel with MSM Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews) and a couple of nurses, Diana Murdoch (Sylvia Syms) and Denise Norton (Diane Clare). They make their own way when they get separated from the rest of their colleagues and come cross a South African officer Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle) who wants a lift to the British lines.  They are fired on by the German Afrika Corps and Denise is shot through the walls of the vehicle. When van der Poel approaches the Germans they withdraw. Anson is suspicious. Van der Poel cannot be parted from his backpack – he shows Anson a couple of bottles of gin and the Brit comforts himself with dreams of a a drink in Alexandria. Pugh is suspicious when van der Poel doesn’t know how to make tea the (British) Army way and is convinced he’s seen an antenna in the backpack. When van der Poel goes off again at night they shine the ambulance lights on him and he gets stuck in quicksand and they have to decide what to do with a German spy … This is a classic British fifties wartime adventure, with John Mills at the peak of his career exploiting notions of his occasionally abject masculinity and he’s especially impressive here, battling alcoholism and exhaustion. Syms has a very good role as the woman who appears to understand him while Quayle is excellent as the interloper with a diplomatic way about him and the brute strength required to push the ambulance when it gets stuck in an escarpment. Christopher Landon adapted his own Saturday Evening Post articles (and then a 1957 novel) with T. J. Morrison and it was directed with verve by J. Lee Thompson. This got a whole new lease of life thirty years ago when the final sequence was used as an ad by Carlsberg because as everyone knows and John Mills says, Worth waiting for. Iconic.

Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

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Every day when I get up and I see there’s a whole new other day I go absolutely ape! Richard Benson (William Holden) is holed up in a swish Paris apartment with a great view and he has two days left of his 20-week contract to fulfill a screenwriting assignment commissioned on the basis of the title by a monied producer.  He’s spent all that time travelling around Europe, having an affair with a Greek actress and drinking. Now he’s hired a typist called Gabrielle Simpson (Audrey Hepburn) who’s really a wannabe writer who spent the first six months of her two-year stint in the city living a very louche life. He dictates various opening scenes of The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower and eventually constructs a version which takes off with Gabrielle standing in for the lead actress in a story which mutates into a spy thriller. Her actor boyfriend in the story (Tony Curtis) dumps her (in reality she has a date to keep in two days – Bastille Day) and she gets embroiled with Benson himself as the presumed villain. When Gabrielle takes over the storytelling she turns him into a vampire because of a childhood obsession with Dracula. He rewrites it like the hack he really is and gives it a Hollywood ending – straight out of Casablanca. Real life meshes with reel life and Noel Coward – playing his producer Alexander Myerheim – materialises at a party in the film within a film. Marlene Dietrich has a cameo and Curtis has great fun in his supporting role as a narcissistic Method actor. This postmodern remake of the French film Holiday for Henrietta by Julien Duvivier and Henri Jeanson got a rewrite by George Axelrod and it’s brimming with Hollywood references and a surplus of nods to the films of both stars:  talk about meta! It was put into production by Paramount who exercised their contractual rights over Holden and Hepburn, reunited after Sabrina a decade earlier. They had had a much-fabled affair then and Hepburn allegedly turned down Holden’s offer of marriage due to his vasectomy as she was obsessed with having a child. She was by now married to actor and director Mel Ferrer and Holden turned up to the set in a very bad way, still not over her. His drinking was out of control and he had numerous accidents befall him which ended up scuppering the final scene. It was directed by Richard Quine, who had previously made The World of Suzie Wong with him and that gets a shout out too. Hepburn’s husband Ferrer has a cameo here as a partygoer and Sinatra does some singing duties when Benson announces the titles of the film within a film. There are far more laughs here than the contemporary reviews would give it credit, with some shrewd screenplay analysis and Benson even talks at regular intervals about his planned book The Art of Screenplay Writing which sounds like a useful handbook. Hepburn was outfitted as ever by Hubert de Givenchy who betrays her terrifyingly anorectic frame and he also gets a credit for her perfume despite this not being released in Smell-O-Rama. Hepburn had legendary Claude Renoir (the same) fired as director of photography because she felt he wasn’t flattering her and had him replaced with Charles Lang, who accompanied her to her next film, Charade, which shares a location with this – the Punch and Judy show at the front of the Theatre de Marigny. There’s a sinuous score by Nelson Riddle.

Father Goose (1964)

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Great blood! A battle of the sexes comedy masquerading as a wartime spy film, this features Cary Grant’s penultimate screen outing as history prof Walter Eckland living as a beach bum and persuaded by his old friend Commander Frank Houghton (Trevor Howard) of the Australian Navy to report for the Allies on Japanese activities around his remote Pacific island following an evacuation in the area. He’s a lousy watch and spends most of his time drinking so he’s ordered to fetch his replacement on a nearby island. Instead he finds stuck-up French teacher Catherine (Leslie Caron) who was washed ashore with seven of her charges, the children of diplomats whose ship was wrecked. In between the sparring the romantic sparks fly and Eckland’s unexpected rapport with the children leads one of them to speak for the first time. And the difficulties between the adults dissolve leading them to contemplate marriage over the radio with a Navy chaplain presiding. Then the Japanese arrive … once, twice and then with feeling. It’s time to get off the island and into a submarine. Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff adapted S. H. Barnett’s short story A Place of Dragons and their screenplay won the Academy Award – definitely not what you’d figure in these PC days when clever light comedy is far from the trophy room. It was Stone’s second script for Grant after Charade and while it doesn’t have the depth or construction or even the raft of smart dialogue (there is some nursery rhyme byplay) of that Hitchcockian thriller, it’s an agreeable way to spend a couple of hours. It looks lovely and Grant and Caron are very good together. But here’s the thing:  Grant turned down My Fair Lady to do this and he wanted his Charade co-star Audrey Hepburn to co-star with him in this but she had already committed to My Fair Lady … Wow! Apparently Grant felt this was the screen role that most resembled him in real life which is pretty incredible when the general belief was that he was the suave smooth talking gent he generally portrayed. He got on so well with the children he kept in touch  with them as they grew up and had their own families – and of course he married after this and had a daughter of his own. Directed by Ralph Nelson.

Hotel Reserve (1944)

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Don’t just stand there – do something! The great novelist Eric Ambler was a screenwriter himself but this time round his Epitaph for a Spy was adapted by John Davenport who turns in a very tense thriller despite the obvious limitations of this studio-bound production. It’s the eve of WW2.  James Mason plays Peter Vadassy, an Austrian medical student (he’s half French!) on holiday on the Riviera. He’s arrested for photographs of a naval base near Toulon that appear to have been taken on his camera – but the police know the truth and need to root out a Nazi spy in the hotel without raising suspicions. Vadassy is keen to assert his French nationality and if he doesn’t go along with agent Julien Mitchell’s plans he might be deported to Germany and face goodness knows what. There follows a positively Christie-esque drama as Vadassy attempts to figure out which of the hotel’s suspect residents swapped cameras with him and it’s not hugely surprising when Herbert Lom tops the list. Better still, his villainous other half is played by Lucie Mannheim. If you’re wondering who the Irish-accented lovely is who has a crush on Vadassy it’s Maureen O’Hara’s sister Florrie Fitzsimons in her sole screen appearance under the name Clare Hamilton. Directed by a trio of men – Lance Comfort, Max Greene (Mutz Greenbaum) and Victor Hanbury – who turn in an atmospheric film that raises questions about Britain’s wartime relations with France which still had that government at Vichy when this was released …

Allied (2016)

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Different kinds of bad movies are bad for different reasons but we love them just the same. Sort of. Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is the French-speaking Canadian intelligence agent parachuted into occupied Morocco on a mission during WW2.  He arrives in a bar and cosies up to his fake wife Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) who introduces him to her friends. They are all speaking French. Max and Marianne are spies and have never actually met before tonight. Before you can say Operation Desert Storm they’re having it away in a swirl of sand in their car and without even a hint of jeopardy they carry out their ostensible mission to assassinate the local Nazi chief at a lovely party. Then they fetch up in London at their wedding and while the city is bombed Marianne has their baby daughter. A year later Max is working and she’s staying at home and he’s asked to look at the evidence against his beloved – his superiors in the Special Operations Executive claim that he is sleeping with the enemy and the couple are pitted against one another as Max is forced to question everything and has to figure out if he must kill his own wife….  This starts out kinda like Casablanca. Well. That’s to say it starts in Casablanca which is not the same thing at all. But it does end in an aerodrome. The first half hour is in the realm of the ludicrous – perfect design, badly paced, poorly written and wholly unbelievable. The acting is debatable. I suppose there was some.  Marianne criticises Max’s Canadian French (I know – the worst insult I ever had in Paris was that my accent was Canadian – sheesh!). Except that it was a rainy Saturday, that was me. But it actually gets better. There’s something about dull old north London burbs that has a lingering interest and wondering how wicked Jared Harris might be in planting a seed of doubt in Max’s mind about his lovely wife – not that it lasts for long. This is a turkey that mutates into something of a hybrid spy romance melodrama. It wanted to be a classic but refined its ambitions to resemble something like Hanover Street. Oh I’m too kind. More story, less sauce, next time, you naughty boys with your Lesbian antics. Written by Steven Knight and directed by Robert Zemeckis. I know! Can you believe it? Frankly, no.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

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You can’t unfuck what’s been fucked. Women are always getting in the way. Aren’t they? Berlin 1988. The Cold War. Protesters are gathering to break down the Wall. Super spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed in an MI6 bunker back in London about an impossible mission that’s gone horribly wrong. She relates the sorry saga to her boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA honcho Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) as their uber chief observes behind the usual glass wall. She was deployed to retrieve a dossier of double agents following the murder of their man Gascoigne.  Her meeting in Berlin with station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) is put in jeopardy by the KGB in the first sequence which has the most innovative use of stilettos since Rosa Kleb. The comparison is not for nothing. This is a rollicking non-stop who’s-working-for-what-agency action thriller with an astonishing array of gruesome encounters.  The list everyone wants ends up becoming a Hitchcockian McGuffin because the fun is in the execution (quite viscerally).  It wouldn’t be a Cold War thriller without a double cross-cross-cross complete with a twist ending.  You want it? You got it! This is a postmodern delight with tongue firmly embedded in cheek: from the amazing soundtrack (that’s an audacious thing, using Bowie’s Cat People theme over the titles!), Stalker is playing at the cinema on Alexanderplatz, to a KGB villain called Bakhtin (if you’re into cultural theory) and a neat inversion of the Basic Instinct interrogation scenario with the men defused (literally) by Lorraine’s recollection of Lesbian sex with neophyte French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella). There’s a double agent called Merkel (ha!) and there’s even someone called Bela Balazs on the credits (film theorists will appreciate this…). The songs in some scenes are laugh out loud appropriate and the clothes … the clothes! Talk about on the money!  The action is horribly violent but balletic and believable and Theron is super-likeable in what might well be an audition for Jane Blonde. I want to be her when I grow up. Great fun. Adapted by Kurt Johnstad from the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart and directed by David (John Wick) Leitch, who knows a good action sequence and how to use it.

Keeping Up With the Joneses (2016)

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Ten years, thirty countries, nobody finds us out and we don’t last a week in the suburbs! Desperate housewife Karen Gaffney (Isla Fisher) is bored out of her mind with her kids packed off to summer camp and her meek human resources guy husband Jeff (Zach Galafianakis) off to work at MBI Electronics every day. She spends her days designing a urinal. Then a gorgeous couple moves in across the street and suddenly life in the cul de sac takes on a whiff of international intrigue when she starts spying on them  … only to find that they are undercover agents. Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot are the Joneses and they insinuate themselves into the couple’s life apparently without realising they are being followed by them in turn. When the situation is reversed the average joes find themselves at the centre of a murderous espionage plot – with some treacherous neighbours implicated in industrial theft. Jeff’s people skills and Karen’s feminine intuition come in handy when push comes to shove and there’s an explosive finale involving a villain with self-esteem issues but overall the very good premise and a wonderful cast is laid waste by something – the writing? The pacing? Shame. It coulda been a contender! Written by Michael LeSieur and directed by Greg Mottola.

The November Man (2014)

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Pierce Brosnan had his eye on Bill Granger’s books for a number of years and acquired the rights to There Are No Spies (the seventh in the series) long before he brought it to the screen under the umbrella of his own production company.  Roger Donaldson is the man he hired to direct this pretty grim actioner set in eastern Europe and Russia about a betrayal in the ranks that brings retired CIA agent Peter Devereux (Brosnan) out in the open to try to rescue his former lover. It ultimately involves the kidnapping of Devereux’s young daughter – whom he had by the woman who is killed off in the first twenty minutes in a violent action sequence that clarifies that nobody is taking prisoners. The fact that his former protege David Mason (Luke Bracey) is now apparently on the opposite side of right causes all sorts of moral quandaries in a story concerning double-crossing and political expediency and rivalries.  It’s all about a former Russian General now in line to become President and the refugee case worker (Olga Kurylenko) who wants to expose him for very personal reasons that go back to the second Chechen war. That and a hatchet-faced Russian hitwoman (like Gisele Bundchen before the rhinoplasty) who has a nasty habit of shooting people in the head. There’s no doubt Brosnan was a fantastic James Bond – he played him as a dark character with some terrifically droll lines – but this is a humourless outing and the post-communist world does not look like a very attractive place. Another film has been announced but it would require a much defter hand than what’s on display here.  It was adapted by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek.